In all the words spent on Strom Thurmond’s life and times since his death last week, I have seen no acknowledgment of the most interesting of his sundry racial legacies. She is Essie Mae Washington Williams, a widowed former school teacher in her 70s, living in Los Angeles. Presumably she did not show up for any of the obsequies even though Strom Thurmond was almost certainly her father. Williams is black.
Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson present persuasive evidence in their 1998 biography, Ol’ Strom, that Thurmond sired a daughter in 1925 with a black house servant named Essie “Tunch” Butler, with whom he reputedly had an extended relationship. Though “Black Baby of Professional Racist” would seem to sail over the man-bites-dog bar of what is news, the story has never really gotten traction. The particulars of this family saga simply do not fit into the “redemption narrative” Americans tend to impose on our more regrettable bygones: Better that ol’ Strom “transformed” from the Negro-baiting Dixiecrat presidential candidate of 1948 to One of the First Southern Senators To Hire a Black Aide in 1971.
In contrast to, say, George “I Was Wrong” Wallace, Thurmond has always been an ornery redemption project. He did not repent. Even so, his illegitimate daughter further complicates the moral picture. Does she mean that he was even more heinous than we knew? Or that—dude!—he wasn’t such a racist bastard after all?
We need not dwell on the obvious mind-boggling hypocrisies here: that someone who ran for president on an anti-pool-mixin’ platform was party to an integrated gene pool. Or that Thurmond’s other signature political achievement—the 24-hour-without-bathroom-break filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957—was done in the name of sparing the South from “mongrelization.” This form of duplicity has been a Southern tradition dating back to those miscegenating slave owners. Their peculiar conflation of shame and honor was captured in 1901 Alabama, at a constitutional convention called to disfranchise blacks. A reactionary old ex-governor known for being good to his mulatto “yard children” was aghast that the insincere anti-Negro propaganda fomented by him and his peers might bring actual injury to its objects. He demanded to know why, “when the Negro is doing no harm, why, people want to kill him and wipe him from the face of the earth.”
Even as Thurmond was making a career of segging against his own flesh and blood, he himself wasn’t a complete cad. If he didn’t exactly claim Essie Mae Williams, neither did he disown her. He gave her money and paid her regular visits (and probably tuition) at the black South Carolina college where she was a “high yaller” sorority girl while he was governor of the state. And in some ways, Williams has played the dutiful daughter, insisting over the long years that Thurmond was merely a “family friend.” (Efforts to reach her failed.)
I do not pretend to fully understand these dynamics—and urge those interested in the nexus of race and sex to consult Joel Kovel’s White Racism: A Psychohistory. But I know this: Thurmond’s secret interracial sex life was complementary to the conspicuously virginal choices he made to be his public consorts. The year before being named the Dixiecrat nominee in 1948, the 44-year-old Thurmond was photographed by Life standing on his head for his lovely 21-year-old fiancee. Caption: “Virile Governor.” Thurmond’s second bride, young enough at 22 to be the 66-year-old senator’s granddaughter, was a former Miss South Carolina. Both wives (No. 1 died of a brain tumor at 33) were the proverbial “flower of southern womanhood,” the ideal that justified segregation’s direst form of social control, the ritual castration of lynching. Those fair and nubile white women gave Thurmond’s ugly politics a shiny emotional gloss that blinded the Southern conscience to the shame of the Essie Mae Williamses.
The reason the South is the most interesting region in the country is that it’s the only place where the psychic landscape is parceled out equally among Marx, Freud, and God. Thurmond straddled all three provinces, hard though it has sometimes been to distinguish them under the ground cover of race. (For a different angle on this, see Clarence Thomas.) The Marx part of Thurmond’s story is the best-known: The States Rights Party (“Dixiecrat” was the coinage of a waggish newspaper editor) that drafted him for president in 1948 was a top-down junta of oligarchs who had been plotting their bolt from the New Deal Democratic Party since 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt created the Committee on Fair Employment Practice to eliminate race discrimination in war industries.
Racial conflict as a diversion from class conflict is nothing new, of course. But somehow Thurmond’s subterranean Freudian life—significant relationships with a black daughter and her mother—brings a fresh level of appall to the immorality of his demagoguing. That it was just “bidness” may account for why Strom Thurmond never felt compelled to ask the forgiveness of a race he devoted so much public capital to making miserable—a race that included members of his own family. Then again, he had always been an integrationist.
As for God, I can’t help but wonder if Thurmond felt he had been forsaken by the all-merciful Christian deity and stumbled into the tragic realm of Greek fate when, in 1993, a drunk driver hit and killed the 22-year-old white daughter he did acknowledge, just before she was to enter the Miss South Carolina contest. In any case, if Thurmond seemed to continually elude the harsh verdict of history, now he faces divine judgment. In Doug Marlette’s recent editorial cartoon, the angel greeting Ol’ Strom at heaven’s gate is black. And the sign reads: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”